Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Istanbul Again - Part Seven

Rüstem Pasha mosque

Peter and I begin this, our last day by visiting the beautiful Rüstem Pasha mosque again.  Jon and Dayeong are off, doing their own sightseeing.  They want to see Topkapi Palace and take the boat ride down the Bosphorus, things we've both done before.  

We arrive at the mosque just before noon.  At noon we have to leave, as the mosque workers prepare for the Friday noonday prayer.  We sit in the courtyard  as the first call to prayer is called.  I love these calls.  I sit silently and focus just on the idea of God and whatever I need at that moment of God.  Usually it is the God of love and compassion.  I am in such need of compassion, first of all for myself, and secondly for my husband, whose outlook on life, although Christian, is so different from my own.  I pray then for more understanding and compassion, and thank God for being infinitely compassionate.  I sit there, aware of being in God’s presence, acknowledging that this presence is one of complete love.  I notice the smell around me.  Today it is the pungent smell of köfte being grilled.   

I let Peter guide us by taking us on the ferry from Eminönü to Üsküdar.  He chooses Usküdar, thinking that I had said that Moda, my goal for the day, is in Üsküdar.  I dimly remembered reading that it was in Kadiköy, but I have a hard time keeping all these names straight.  The ferry trip is around a half hour and only costs us a swipe of our Instanbul card.  Arriving in Üsküdar, we find ourselves in a very poor, conservative Muslim town or village, dominated by a mosque and lots of snack bars selling döner or köfte and fried foods around the bus and ferry stations.  We sit down on a bench.  I read the article on Moda that I had torn out of my flight magazine - aloud, so Peter can learn about Moda too.  We both quickly realize we are in the wrong place – we need to be in Kadiköy, which Moda belongs to.  Trying to learn how to get to Kadiköy, we also find that here in Üsküdar no one speaks English.  This is truly a Turkish area.  We are in the middle of an adventure!  How to get to Moda with no language skills and no map?  But Peter asks strangers, “Moda – bus?” and always gets help.  One man says, “Bus – Kadiköy, tram – Moda,” pointing in the direction we should go.  Another man next to us even takes us a hundred meters or so to the right bus.   

We climb onto a Turkish bus, place the card under the reader - and discover that the Istanbul card has run out of money.  Here, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, there seems to be no machine to charge it up with.  A passenger on the bus lets us use her card, but she has only enough for one ride.  We give her 2 lira for that, and the driver seems satisfied that we have at least tried to pay.  He doesn’t kick us off the bus, even though one of us is riding for free.  Is this mercy, or what?  Compassion?  This is what I prayed for!

I feel awful, sitting comfortably in my seat as younger women get up to give older women their seats.  I do notice, however, that none of the men give up their seats for a woman.  I justify my sitting there by telling myself that I am probably older than any of the women being given seats.  

We ride past bazaars and cheap shops for about a half hour until we near Kadiköy, where we suddenly see mansions and lots of big, tall trees.  We round a corner, and there, right before us, is the Haydarpasha train station, right next to the Kadiköy bus station!  Peter has wanted to go into the train station so badly, but we've been thinking it is out of the way.  When we find ourselves practically at the entrance, I talk him into  doing this first.  Surely, since it's lunch time, we'll find food for lunch in the train station.   
Haydarpasha train station
Inside the Haydarpasha train station

Restaurant of the Haydarpasha train station
The train station still has much of that early twentieth century grandeur, with stained glass windows and huge spaces.  Peter tells me it was built in the German style and paid for by the German Kaiser Wilhelm in the early twentieth century.  The restaurant is delightful, lined with blue Turkish tiles and pink trim on the ceiling.  We eat meze.  One of our dishes is grape leaves - stuffed with cherries!  I love the tangy, sour flavor, mixed with the sweetish rice.

Peter's rib is doing much better, and that helps the general mood.  Buoyed after our delicious lunch, we easily walk about a half mile around the harbor to the ferry station and then look for a tram.  Again in Kadiköy, although the area is beautifully landscaped and buildings look more prosperous, we have to use one-word questions.  This way works, and before long we have loaded up our cards again and have entered the tram.  The tram ride is a lot of fun.  It is interesting to observe how different Kadiköy is from Üsküdar.  Kadiköy seems to be as wealthy as Üsküdar is poor, and the shops keep getting posher, the higher up we climb.  We don't know when to get off the tram, though, and we miss our stop.  At this point, Peter's patience and good spirits come to an end. 

“I’m not climbing that hill on foot,” he says in a loud, stubborn voice.  “You’ll have to do it without me.”  

I think quickly.  Moda was MY destination for the day, and I wanted to see this with Peter!  I find a solution in about two seconds.  “We can just stay on the tram again – it’s only another fifteen or twenty minutes more,” I say, and Peter agrees to that. 

We feel at home in Moda right away.  It is a stylish, very Western, European place with enormous homes or modern apartment buildings overlooking the Marmara Sea on one side, and Old Istanbul with the Sultanahmed mosque, the Aya Sophia and Topkapi Palace on the other.    The only foreign thing about this place is the fact that there are practically no tourists here.  We seem to be the only ones, surrounded by well-dressed, western-looking locals.  We pass one trendy shop or coffee bar after another.  We spot a fruit and vegetable shop.  "I need quince for a dish I want to make when we get back to Germany," Peter says.  I've already been looking for quince in the local German markets.  There's none to be found this time of year, I keep hearing.  At this stand in the outskirts of Istanbul, we find not only quince, but ripe pomegranates as well.  The shopkeeper is thrilled to learn that we live in Germany.  "I lived in Germany too!" he exclaims in German.  "Nuremberg!"  He throws in an extra quince and more and more pomegranates until we yell, "Stop!  We have to get this onto the plane!"  He is simply thrilled to find people from Germany who are interested in Turkey and his neighborhood, Moda.

With a bit of difficulty and repeatedly saying the word, "Dondurmaci", we eventually find the ice cream restaurant that the airline magazine raves about - the "Dondurmaci", run by Ali Usta .  I eat a cone.  It's pretty good, especially with the chocolate sauce they add.
Moda with a view of the Marmara Sea

Across the street there's a Lavazza café.  I drink cappuccino as I lovingly lick my ice cream cone.  Peter has a waffle he bought at a waffle place across another street.  His is the most incredible waffle I have ever seen, loaded down in strawberries, banana and chocolate syrup.  "This is only a fraction of the toppings you can put on it," he says.  We sit and enjoy watching self-confident, European-looking Turks walk along the street chatting and greeting people eating in our café.  There's a lady pushing a baby in a stroller, perhaps her grandchild.  She stops to chat with some women in the café.  

The following day, back in Frankfort, Germany, we stand in line to go through Immigration.  A friendly man whose appearance could be German, but whose accent isn't quite right, is chatting with people to help the time pass.  I notice his name tag.  He's Turkish!  I exclaim, "We were just in Istanbul."

"I live in Istanbul as well as here," the man says.  "I live in a part the tourists don't usually go to, in Kadiköy."

"Kadiköy?!" we exclaim.  We were there yesterday!"

Now it is his turn to be surprised.  "Really?!  But I come from a place outside of Kadiköy, called Moda."

"We were there yesterday!" we continue, thrilled to have been in the very village this man lives in.

"Did you try the ice cream?" he asks, and is visibly pleased to see that we have.

"That Ali Usta is quite the guy.  He's a farmer, and he brings his own milk to the ice cream café."  This is a first for me, to have eaten ice cream from the owner's own cows.

What a place Istanbul is.  Not everything about this trip has been easy.  I have been stretched and challenged, first of all by my own personal situation, and also by this city and country.  I am charmed again, despite myself.  In my heart, I want to go back to Egypt, where life is much harder, but where faith is more visibly present.  But, precisely on this point, there's something about Turkey that intrigues me.  I believe there is more here than meets the eye.  In Istanbul there is a lot of crass materialism, but there is also a less obvious, but possibly more deeply lived, more personally tailored kind of approach to spirituality than the obvious piety I saw in Egypt.  I am drawn to this.  I want to learn more.  I hope I can go back to Istanbul, but perhaps to another part of Turkey one day.  If I get there, you'll hear about it.   

Monday, May 13, 2013

Istanbul Again - Part Six

The Sultanahmet, also known as the "Blue Mosque"
Today we have to make up for our lost day.  We have a full day ahead of us.  We will "do" Old Istanbul, visiting the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia and the Byzantine Cisterns.  We'll have meat balls at the famous köfte restaurant, "Sultanahmet Köftecisi".  I am told that, like with Ray's Pizza in New York, everybody tries to imitate the best one, using similar names.  The best, the original one is at number 12 on the Divan Yolu, a stone's throw away from the blue mosque.  We ate there the last time Peter and I were in Istanbul. 
THE place for köfte - Tarihi Sultanahmet at #12
In the afternoon I will go to a proper historic hamam in Old Istanbul.

One of the cars in the Allgäu-Orient Rallye
On the way to the Sultanahmet mosque, we stop at the Hippodrome, where Peter explains the Egyptian obelisk and the function of the hippodrome to Jon and Dayeong.  We see some dusty cars parked - right on the Hippodrome.  We walk on.  More cars.  They're not oldtimers.  The cars are loaded with stickers.  What are they doing here? 

At first, we think it is some sort of PR gimmick.  All the cars have roof top carriers filled with things like suitcases, thermarests and sleeping bags, even bobby cars for kids.  They look tired, used up.  After a closer look, we see that every single car has German license plates and almost all of the cars are German-made.  I find a couple of men sitting near some of these cars.  They look non-Turkish, so, figuring they might be German, I speak to them in German.

 "We're on a Rallye!" they exclaim.   
Participants in the Allgäu-Orient Rallye

So what's a Rallye?  Jon explains that it's a sort of cross-country car race.  You can read all about a Rallye and this particular one (in German) here:  In short, the drivers have to drive cheap used cars, and can't drive on any freeways, toll roads or ferries.
These guys have a map right on a carpeted hood!

There must be a couple hundred of these cars.  The men tell me they're in a race that began at the Lake of Constance.  They're on their way to Amman, Jordan.  They left Germany a week before, driving all the way to Istanbul without ever having to be on a ferry.  They have three more weeks to go.  The only part they will do on water is when they have to take a ferry around Syria, which is too dangerous to drive through right now, with a civil war going on.

What an adventure!  If I had time and a companion, I’d do it, even if I ended up last.    

Istanbul Again - Part Five

Policement blocking the entrances to the Istiklal and Tünel

Now our group is complete.  Dayeong, Jon’s girlfriend, has arrived in Istanbul from Seoul, Korea, on April 30.  Good thing it wasn’t on May Day.  Nobody has bothered to tell us that if we had booked her flight for one day later, she would have been unable to get to the hotel.

On days like this, May 1, it would be good to speak some of the language, to understand why the police are being so strict.  No one gave us any warning at all about what we would encounter today.  In some parts of Europe, including Germany, May 1 is a festive day, with dancing, flowers and maypoles.  In Belgium men give beautiful little lily of the valley bouquets to their girlfriends and wives.  The German word, in fact, for lilies of the valley is Maiglöckchen - "little Maybells".  In Germany itself, this custom is unknown, but there is another custom young lovers practice.  Young men, usually teenagers, “plant” little birch trees outside the windows of their girlfriends, stringing crepe paper ribbons on the branches.  Such sweet demonstrations of love.  There seems to be another, entirely ominous kind of demonstration on this day in Turkey, one which we are completely unprepared for .    

It is a beautiful warm, sunny morning and we eat our breakfast outdoors in leisure, accompanied by a CD playing Tchaikovsky music.  The streets are quiet.  Everything seems exquisitely calm.  Today our plan is to go to historic Istanbul.  We will first go to Tünel, the funicular that transports people down a steep hill,  to join another tram across the Galata bridge, where we can arrive, after about three stops, in historic Istanbul.  We plan to see the Aya Sophia, the “Blue Mosque” and the Byzantine cisterns.  As we walk, we see that the shops are almost all closed.  How nice!  The workers deserve a day off.  After all, this is the European version of the American "Labor Day".  But as we reach the street to the Tünel, we are surprised to see wire fences in front of us, blocking us from access to the Tünel.  We walk up another street and manage to get to the square, but see that it is swarming with police, police buses and trucks.  A policeman with very limited English informs us that the funicular is not running.  Basta.  No more information.  Not to be daunted, we decide to descend the entire stretch on foot.  A policeman kindly lets us squeeze through his police barricade.  When we reach the Galata tower, one of Istanbul’s most famous tourist attractions, Jon notices that there are almost no tourists waiting in line to get to the top.  “Why don’t we quickly go up there and have a look?” he says.  “This would be nice for Dayeong.”

Peter and I wait at the foot of the tower, reading maps and tourist guides.  About a half hour later Jon and Dayeong return. “We can tell you that there’s no point in walking down to the tram,” Jon says.  “They’ve lifted the Galata Bridge – it’s in two parts now, and there are no ferry boats or trams running.”

I find a street vendor selling little “bird” models like the one Hezarfen, the world’s first aviator, used to fly from the Galata tower to the Asian side of the Bosphorus in 1638.  The vendor is eager to tell me the story of how great Hezarfus was because of  this feat.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to be murdered by the Sultan, simply for being on the Sultan’s bad side. 

It seems as though the powers at be in Turkey are historically less than indulgent towards people who differ politically from them  They get arrested – or even murdered, as in the case of this poor aviator.  The vendor tells me that we are entirely sealed off from the rest of Istanbul.  There will be no metro service today, no buses, no trams, even the bridges are all closed.  We can't even walk up the Istiklal to Taksim Square. 

Jon and Dayeong decide to walk down towards the bridge, anyway.  Peter and I wander around the side streets leading off the Istiklal.  Everything is deserted, and every passageway leading onto the Istiklal is sealed off.  We rest in the lobby of one of those grand old hotels from the time of Queen Victoria and the sultans, hoping to be served a cup of tea.  As we wait, we idly play with the figures at a backgammon table in front of us.  "If only we knew how to play - we'd have something to do," I say.  We continue to be ignored by the waiter, but suddenly what's being shown on Turkish TV fascinates us.  We see mobs of policemen, many more than those we saw at Tünel, surrounding a few dozen demonstrators, showering them with water cascades.  A policewoman is carrying a tear gas mask. 

I don’t know what the people are demonstrating about, or what the police or the government are afraid of.  I thought Turkey was a democracy.  Maybe people are allowed to demonstrate, providing they can get to the Taksim Square – the place where all the demonstrations take place – if they managed to get there the evening before and could afford the price of a hotel, and don’t mind being doused with pellets of water or a little tear gas. 

Wikipedia says that this day, called “Workers’ Day” in Turkey, has historically been a day filled with rioting and violence, both on the side of the police as on that of the demonstrators.  On 1 May, 1977, there was even a massacre at Taksim Square.  Because of all the violence.  This “holiday” was banned in Turkey from 1981 until 2010.  As recently as 2007 there was a casualty in the demonstrations, and in 2011 there were over half a million demonstrators.

I later read in an English-language Turkish newspaper that the authorities have decided to grant demonstrators the right to demonstrate on this day.  We see no sign of this.  We also hear that there has been violence on both sides in this paltry demonstration with only the few participants that managed to break through the barricades.  

I also read that the Turkish government is trying to remove artisans from the covered bazaar to some place on the outskirts of the city, far away from the public who would buy their wares, and from the city that inspires them.  On this day we learn that things in this ultra-modern city are not always as they seem.

In the afternoon, still stranded in Pera, the neighborhood where we are staying, Jon and Dayeong rejoin us, exhausted after having had to climb the steep hill from the water back up to Pera.  We walk together over to the nearby Pera Palace Hotel, the one I call the "Agatha Christie" hotel.  This is the hotel Agatha Christie stayed in when she wrote Murder on the Orient Express.  I'm told that if the room is empty, you can view it -  for the price of a tip.  This is a wonderful, grand old hotel built in the colonial era, complete with plush carpets, palms and orchids, cupolas, inlaid wood, and stained glass windows.  We enjoy afternoon tea in the English style, as we watch an Italian film crew film a soap opera segment - in Istanbul.  It's funny hearing them yell, "Action!" and "Cut!" in Italian-accented English.  We're all exiled colonialists today.
A delicious lemon meringe tarte at the Pera Palace

The only Turkish friend I’ve ever had disappeared one day from my life.  She told me how she would be arrested if she ever returned to Turkey.  She was once a communist and was arrested at a demonstration.  For all I know, it could have been at Taksim Square.  The conditions in prison were appalling, and her sentence was for many years.  She did nothing but participate in a demonstration.  She was granted parole after several years, and used the opportunity to flee from Turkey.  She applied for and received political asylum in Germany.  Later, years after we had lost contact with one another, I heard that Turkey had loosened up and was now allowing former dissidents back in.  I only hope that this poor woman, disillusioned by both Communism and Islam, has found a way back to her country and to a life of peace.  I am sure she will never be caught in a demonstration again.  She has found all sides to be cynical and hypocritical.  I believe God is there, though, waiting to be found.  God is over there, just beyond those demonstrators, on the other side of that mob of policemen.  And right here in my heart, offering us peace in the midst of violence.  Oh, to discover more and more of that kind of peace.     


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Istanbul Again - Part Four

A cheap ticket to over 900 square kilometers

Unlike Peter and me, our son Jon has never been to Istanbul before this trip, yet it is he who introduces us to one of the latest phenomena in modern technology - the Istanbul card.  For about $3, or €2.50 you can buy this card and then fill it up, like the tank in your car.  If it approaches "empty", you can simply top it up with more money on your card.  With this ticket, you can ride anywhere in metropolitan Istanbul, which can be more than 30 kilometers from where you are, for about $.90, or €.75.  Until the day he announced he needed to buy this card at a kiosk, he had been watching his parents struggle with buying 3 lira tokens in machines, scrambling to get enough change to put into the slot.  A 3 lira token is worth about $1.50, or €1.20, costing almost twice the cost of a ride on the Istanbul card.  Germany continues to be behind the times when it comes to savvy technological innovation.  We only have a plastic card you can buy on a subscription basis after mailing in an application, or a cardboard ticket you can buy in a vending machine.  The vending machine has complicated instructions, and this cardboard ticket only  lets you ride for one day, in a group, or for four rides, at astronomically high prices.  Not being on the lookout for such things, we don't notice this fabulous opportunity to get around much more cheaply and conveniently.  But Jon, who has traveled even more widely than we have, has used such cards in places like Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, and Singapore.  He reads about the card on one of the vending machines at a tram stop, while his parents struggle to buy tokens.  He intuits the advantages of the "Instanbulkart" and even knows that he can purchase this card at a newspaper kiosk.  He asks us to accompany him to a kiosk.  He obvioulsy has plans to use this card with his girlfriend Dayeong, who will be arriving soon from Seoul.  We head to the nearest kiosk and buy him a card, still not recognizing the advantages possessing this card will bring us.

But I have plans for the day that will involve the use of Jon's card, which we can also ride on.  There is unlimited use for as many people and as long as the card is loaded for.  You can use the card for the tram, metro, and even ferries across the Bosphorus!  What I want to do is use the metro to travel to an Istanbul shopping mall.  I have heard that Istanbul has fabulous shopping malls, and I want to see for myself.  Everyone thinks this is a good idea, so we head for the metro station, just outside our posh hotel.

I am amazed.  We descend from escalator to escalator into the depths of the earth, even deeper than in London's tube.  The walls and floors are lined with gleaming mosaics, and there is not even a scribble of graffiti anywhere.  Why can't Germany do anything about kids scribbling everywhere on walls?  Where I live, they recently built a new bridge over the freeway, and within days, it was covered with graffiti.  Not only is there no graffiti in the metro station - everything sparkles with cleanliness.  There are no mud spots on the floor, there is no film of sand, no grime on the walls.

An Istanbul metro station
The trains are similar - new, shiny, clean - and fast.  The only trouble is, it seems we have to take one line only one stop - to Taksim Square, and change there to get a metro to the stop we want for the Cevahir shopping mall.  A nice young man helps us to read and understand the metro map, explaining that he will be getting off at the same stop, so he will accompany us the whole way.  "We are so grateful for this metro," he says.  "We can travel so much more easily now.  Imagine - for only three lira, you can travel way across Istanbul to the other side - you can ride for more than thirty kilometers!"

Soon the two sides of Istanbul, European and Asian, will be connected by metro.  At present they are separated by the Bosphorus.  (By the way, these words in different colors are links - if you click on the words, you can read something about what the link refers to - in this case, an article about the new metro tunnel.)  When the two sides of Istanbul are connected, you will be able to travel more than seventy kilometers by metro!

We ride for about five kilometers, getting off at the second stop after boarding the train at Taksim.  The shopping mall runs right into the metro station, so there is no getting lost.

Like the metro station, the Cevahir mall is also gleaming and ultra-modern.  This is considered an ordinary Istanbul shopping mall.  Apparently, if you want to see real luxury, you need to go to Istinye Park or Kanyon mall.  

Cevahir shopping mall
What is this place Turkey all about, anyway?  Is this an El Dorado?  Istanbul is not only modern, it is ultra-modern!  How modern, or how primitive, is the rest of Turkey?  Istanbul  is very different from the view of Turkey I have when walking down Keupstrasse, the main thoroughfare in one of the Turkish neighborhoods of Cologne.  But what I read about in the women's gift shop indicates that conditions are difficult in rural Turkey.  This disparity must explain why so many people pour in each day from rural areas to Istanbul, and farther on to Germany. 

We buy a beautiful wooden salad bowl in an attractive kitchen shop.  Outside the shop, we explore more of the mall.  The ground floor is full of kitchen, furniture stores and all sorts of shops related to home, including a big supermarket.  It seems the Turks love English home decor - we find several shops with English prints on towels, quilts, sheets and kitchenware.  There are several levels with department stores, including the German chain C&A and British Marks and Spencer.  The top two levels are both food courts and restaurants.  The people shopping in the mall look as ordinary as those in Germany or the US.     

I read that the Turkish economy was growning at about an amazing 8% annually, until 2012.  Now it has slowed down to about 2%.  Greece's youth unemployment rate (for the -24 age bracket) is a whopping 60%.  Still, the level of Turkish youth unemployment is also unsettling - nearly 17%.  I hear many Germans are choosing to retire in Turkey, either in Istanbul or on the coast.  I'm not surprised.  But I'm reading that Turkey is also living in a bubble.  Will this bubble burst?  There are no signs of it at the shopping mall.